Movie Review: The Revenant

I was annoyed last year when Alejandro G. Inarritu’s BIRDMAN beat BOYHOOD for both best director and best picture at the Oscars, but I think I’ll be even more upset if his latest feature, THE REVENANT, wins neither of those. The film, based on a true story, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a navigator mauled by a bear, and Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, a fur trapper on the same expedition. Fitzgerald is assigned to make sure Glass dies in peace and receives a proper burial, but under the threat of violent Native Americans and the promise of money, he instead kills Glass’s son and leaves him for dead, prompting Glass to find the strength to crawl back to civilization and wreak vengeance.

The movie has its fans and critics, with most of the acclaim centering on the amazing cinematography and Leo’s performance, and the long run time, unnecessary scenes, and lack of subtlety frequently cited as detracting from the experience.

It’s tough to argue with the last point: Inarritu is not known for being understated. BIRDMAN repeatedly hammers the viewer with its themes and its thoughts on movies and art and superhero flicks. But in THE REVENANT it seems to mirror Glass’s single mindedness: kill Fitzgerald. Little else matters.

Going along with this, the movie challenges the audience the same way nature challenges Glass. Though the shots of mountains and forests, plains and rivers are beautiful, at times it feels like for every breathtaking scene there is a bit of violence to even it out. There are also dream sequences, usually populated by memories of Glass’s dead Native American wife and his son. Some have decried these scenes as self-indulgent, but, other than one featuring a pile of buffalo skulls, none are out of place or ruin the pacing; instead, they offer a view into the life and thoughts of the quiet Glass. Couple all this with long stretches that are just Leo wordlessly crawling and surviving, and the end result is a long movie where structure embodies theme.

Clearly, THE REVENANT is not for everyone. Those expecting the dark comedy and banter of BIRDMAN will be disappointed, and those expecting a romp with the dreamy Leo will spend a lot of the run time covering their eyes. But for those who can stomach the gore and the long run time, THE REVENANT should not be missed. Looking at Oscar odds, it’s likely I’ll come away disappointed this year as well, but at least it looks like the Leo meme will end this year.

In closing, I’ll offer an interesting fan theory that’s been making the rounds: the revenant of the title (definition: someone who comes back from the dead) is not Glass, but his wife, who haunts him throughout his journey back to civilization. Some point out how the nonfiction book the movie is based on is also entitled THE REVENANT and features no such wife figure, but then in real life Glass neither had a son nor got his revenge, so there is no reason why the film can’t take liberties and have the title refer to someone else. At the very least, this theory puts the ending (which I won’t spoil here) in a new light.


Book Review: Morning and Evening by Jon Fosse

Little known in the English world, Fosse is one of the most acclaimed living playwright’s in the world. But his first passion was writing novels, and this one proves he has some serious prose skills.

The first 15 pages of the novella describe in real time the birth of Johannes, the other 80 the last day of his life. Despite unfolding in a cliché way, this is a great, heartfelt read. Condensing Johannes’s life into two points could have easily been used as a gimmick but Fosse pulls it off, and by the end of this short, short book you feel like you’ve seen Johannes’s whole lifespan.

Don’t be deceived by the length—this is a surprisingly dense, stream of conscious novella. But don’t be put off by that either, because the language here is simpler (but still just as poetic) compared to similarly written books. Once you get used to the style it’s not too hard to follow, no leaps through times, and matches the disorientation Johannes feels when he wakes up on a day when everything is the same but at the same time different.

This is one of Fosse’s more critically acclaimed works back home. It was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize and ranked fourth on a list of the top 25 Norwegian books published from 1981 to 2006. I’d recommend anyone who wants to read Fosse’s prose start here (although you can’t go wrong with Aliss, either).

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

A bomb goes off in a museum. A boy, Theo, loses his mother. In his confusion, he steals a prized portrait, setting off his descent into a world of art, thievery, drugs, and murder.

Thus begins Donna Tartt’s acclaimed novel, THE GOLDFINCH. When first released, this novel elicited strong reactions, both positive and negative. Some proclaimed it the best book of the year, while others decried it, going so far as to compare it to a children’s book. So which is it? Are its themes and story enough to sustain the hefty 700+ page novel to its conclusion?

Either way, it’s impossible to fault Tartt for being unambitious. Her narrative stretches across time and country, detailing Theo’s development from boy to man and visiting locales as diverse as Las Vegas and Amsterdam. Still, at times it feels like Tartt could have benefitted from dreaming a little less big. Some parts of the book drone on, halting all narrative momentum, and by the end it felt like a hundred pages could easily have been edited out without changing the basic story.

Theo narrates the story. Here the book shines, allowing the woman author a chance to give an incredible depiction of a boy suffering from PTSD. Theo is not always the most likeable character, but for readers who can get past that, Theo is a memorable narrator. Some other characters are one dimensional, but from Theo’s point of view, this is understandable and forgivable. The story itself may take its time getting to the point, but the well developed characters gives fans the motivation to push through.

Overall, THE GOLDFINCH is far from the best book of 2013, but it is also far from the drivel others have summed it up as. It suffers from a variety of flaws, but despite these, for most readers this a fun, literary read that goes by surprisingly quickly despite its length.

Book Review: My Struggle vol. 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Going through a complete stranger’s intimate diary does not sound like the most thrilling read, even more so when that stranger hails from half way across the world and the title bears the same name as a famous hate-filled book, but volume one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s MY STRUGGLE is a worthwhile read. The first in a six-book memoir project that has earned comparisons with Proust, is not always gripping but definitely ranks one of the most intriguing books in recent times.

The first volume is split into two unequal parts, the first (and shorter section) about Knausgaard’s teenage years, describing a disappointing New Year’s Eve party and the (unrelated) divorce of his parents, the second (and much more substantial segment) going into his father’s death years later and the funeral preparations.

While the first part is slow, it is surprising how many cringe inducing parallels readers can find between Knausgaard’s teenage years and their own, and there lies the appeal of these books. In the specific lies the universal. As Knausgaard reflects on his own life, it is hard not to do the same. And those who make it to the second part are rewarded with a touching account and meditation on death and parenthood.

The first volume of MY STRUGGLE is not for everyone. Anyone looking for a beach read should search elsewhere, but those with even a passing interest in the series are advised to jump in. With four of the books out in English and a fifth arriving this Spring, those looking for another big series need look no further.